The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, in relevant part:
“Congress shall make no law… abridging freedom of speech.”
Subsequent court decisions have rightfully limited that freedom in certain instances making some forms of speech illegal. One good example comes from the case of Brandenburg vs. Ohio where the court decided that our freedom of speech does not include the right to incite imminent lawless action.
Not long ago, a powerful world leader directly incited the attack on the U.S. Capitol without facing prosecution. Many schools are now banning a variety of classic literature based on their negative perceptions of the content. Riots can break out over a single comment during a legal protest. So, I ask again, does freedom of expression still exist in America?
In this post, I will answer that question from my personal perspective and offer some suggestions for writers on how to walk the tightrope of “appropriate content.” These are simply my views; if they offend or upset you in any way, please just skip the article and ignore my words.
My answer is: Freedom of expression no longer exists in the way we might expect.
Now, we are expected to temper our speech and use politically correct vocabulary in order to not offend others. On the surface, that seems a fair limitation, but with a large number of people becoming much more sensitive on a variety of topics and acceptable choices of words becoming more and more limited, expressing yourself without offending anyone is tantamount to impossible.
As writers, we can alienate or infuriate our readers with just a few poorly chosen words.
I have experienced this myself on several occasions. My previous post, 2022: A Pandemic Odyssey, is a prime example. My intention with that article was to express my personal experiences and concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. In a single paragraph, I called out the President of the United States at the time as being partially responsible for the widespread outbreak in America. That one little paragraph incited controversy and got me labeled as a “Trump Hater.”
The sad thing here is that a single word or passage can cause you to instantly lose your readers. That post was not about politics; it was about the impact that the virus has had on me, my family, and the world at large.
Another personal example is in word choice. What you may see as a completely innocent reference, someone else may see as insensitive or even disgusting.
In a descriptive scene from Rebirth, I mentioned the word “panties.” One word! The pushback from my editors and proofreaders was immediate. Apparently, that word now comes with negative connotations; underwear is now the politically correct terminology even though women can shop for that particular piece of underwear by running a search on “panties” at any of the major outlets.
In some cases, it is not just the word that can be offensive but the context in which it is being used.
As an author, I do not want to offend any of my readers. I don’t mind changing my vocabulary with the times and I appreciate learning how to better relate to others. That said, writing politically correct fiction that won’t offend anyone is a difficult ocean to navigate; one wrong move and you capsize.
Perspectives are subjective and conditional.
Political correctness is not just about using the right words; it is about understanding who can use them and in what context they can be used. As an example, a woman can call her girlfriend the b-word, but a man cannot. Or, consider the popularity of hip-hop and rap songs that are riddled with the n-word. In that context, spoken by those people, millions of albums have sold. This phenomenon makes understanding how to navigate the tumultuous waters of political correctness even more difficult.
Another curious fact is that the same person who would take offense at a particular expression or behavior in one instance might love it in another.
To illustrate that point, I have been told that some of my prose is too graphically violent or sexually explicit by readers who enjoy shows like Hannibal, Dexter, and The Game of Thrones. In all of my writing, I have never come even remotely close to the graphic violence and gratuitous sex of The Game of Thrones. I find it a strange paradox that acceptance is made in certain situations, but not others.
How, within your limited freedom of expression, can you write a fictitious story without offending anyone?
You can’t! What you can do is limit the impact. Here are a few suggestions on how:
1. Pick your moments!
If one of your characters is a racist or a womanizer, make sure that you choose the right moments to reveal that fact. Keep it simple and try to convey that you are writing the thoughts, opinions, and dialogue from the perspective of the character, not the author.
2. Familiarize yourself with appropriate terminology.
When a group decides that they no longer care for a word, remove it from your vocabulary. There is a limit here, though. If you feel strongly that the word you are using, politically incorrect or not, best conveys your thought, then go with it and be prepared to accept the ramifications.
3. Keep it in context!
Don’t incite controversy for the sake of inciting controversy.
If the potentially offensive word or phrase does not add to your story, then drop it. Try to keep your provocative descriptions and dialogue within the context of your unfolding plot.
4. Use your freedom of expression sparingly.
If your book reads as potentially offensive from cover to cover, then you will have written an offensive book. When used sparingly, politically incorrect speech and behaviors can evoke an emotional response in your readers toward a particular character; that can be a good thing if it is what you were going for, but don’t make a habit of it.
5. Remember that you can’t please everyone all the time.
What one man hates, another man loves.
Think about your target audience and keep that in mind as you write your stories. If, for example, you are writing about a serial killer, while the content may turn a lot of readers off, it may be perfectly aligned for your target audience. The same can be said of any genre: some will love it; some will hate it.
In closing, I will say this about freedom of expression: although it is changing with our times, we have a responsibility as authors to roll with the changes.
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